Saturday, January 24, 2015

Law, Chaos, and Conflict

I just posted an update to the Skybourne kickstarter explaining a little bit about how alignment works in the Skybourne universe, and now that I've explained the 'how' of alignment there, I thought I would take some time here to explain the 'why'.

As a designer, one of the things I do is identify places where the game could be expanded, explained, or attempted differently, and alignment fits the bill. In every forum that I've ever seen dealing with Pathfinder or D&D, I don't think I've seen a topic discussed more frequently than alignment: "Why does a paladin have to be Lawful?", "Why can't I make a barbarian/monk?", "Is the PC rogue who stole the party's things and slit their throats in their sleep a dick or does 'I'm just playing my Chaotic Neutral alignment!' really work there?"

The reason why interpreting alignment is so important in the above-situations is that it is hard-coded into Pathfinder; alignment requirements for classes, magic like dispel evil or protection from good, outsiders who have aligned subtypes; it's not just a guide for players, it's a part of the adventuring life. As such, the thing that seems the most intriguing to me about alignment isn't defining what is or is not a chaotic good personality, but really unpacking these mechanics; why are they there, and what do they mean?

For the Good/Evil divide, we generally seem to know what we're doing: heroes going off to defeat the evil dragon/necromancer/lich is such a part of the adventuring mythos that even neutral parties find themselves doing it for money, and almost every cleric casts protection from evil at some point in their career. The class with Good as a prerequisite (paladin) and the class with Evil as a prerequisite (Antipaladin) are literally polar opposites, and it isn't hard to imagine campaign conflicts that would pit these two against each other.

But what about Law and Chaos? They have the same mechanics; law and chaos have their own cleric domains like good and evil, and spells like protection from law and chaos hammer exist right alongside their good and evil companions. Stories are based around conflict, and the law/chaos divide seems to be designed to provide just as much conflict as the good/evil divide, but I've rarely seen this done in a way that seems satisfying. Sure, I've seen campaigns that tried to pit freedom fighters (chaos) against tyranny (law), but I've never seen that quite work; aside from the fact that even then I rarely see the law/chaos spells and mechanics being used, it raises all sort of new questions: If those freedom fighters win, won't they set up a government too, and would that make them suddenly lawful? Many revolutions throughout history have created governments just as oppressive as the ones they overthrew (often just targeted at different sub-groups). Is it only about attitudes toward personal freedoms and colonialism? And what does that say about classes with lawful/chaotic prerequisites? If paladins and antipaladins are defined by their conflict along the good/evil axis, what about monks and barbarians? True a barbarian must be nonlawful which leaves neutrality an option, but if we define the lawful/chaotic divide as opinions toward personal freedom or revolution, are we saying monks must always side with the tyrant and barbarians in opposition to him?

The answer given in Skybourne as detailed in our update (forest vs civilization) is an attempt to answer these questions by giving a visceral conflict to the law/chaos divide just as poignant as the good/evil divide. In Skybourne, lawful and chaotic forces fight for control of the destiny of a world, lawful to tame it, chaotic to free it.

Lawful evil forces could descend on chaotic good villages to enslave them, or lawful good forces could rally to defend a monastery against chaotic evil invaders, but as often as not it could simply be lawful neutral force plundering the forest for desperately-needed resources, or chaotic neutral forces invading lawful lands to stop what they see as the cruel and unusual subjugation of the natural world. In this setup not only do we provide players and GMs a reason to use spells that affect the lawful/chaotic divide, but also provide a series of potential adventure hooks for entire campaigns built around exploring this axis.

How about you all? Have you ever played a game that dealt with the law/chaos alignment axis? How did it go?

Adam

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some Thoughts on Advanced Magic

I remember once before writing our reasoning as to why we divided magic into ‘basic magic’ and ‘advanced magic’, but now that the book is out I thought it would be good to re-visit the idea of game-changing magic and our approach to it.

It has been said that the D&D 3/3.5 tradition that Pathfinder is built on is not one game, but is in reality 4: Levels 1-5 (gritty fantasy), levels 6-10 (heroic fantasy), levels 11-15 (Wuxia), and levels 16-20 (superheroes). The principal difference between these divisions is the availability of certain magic that can completely change the way each game is actually played.

Gritty fantasy (levels 1-5) is characterized by its dangerousness and lack of magic; players need heal kits, horses, skill checks, and melee weapons to accomplish anything worthwhile, even if you’re a cleric or wizard.

Heroic fantasy (levels 6-10) is characterized by its lack of dangerousness, at least in the everyday; magical healing has replaced all need for heal kits, fireballs are a regular crowd-clearing tactic, and at the end of this gameplay style, the party can even make limited use of teleportation, planeswalking, and the raising of the dead. To gritty fantasy, heroic fantasy characters are heroes spoken of in whispers and stories.

Wuxia (levels 11-15) is a completely different game from the earlier levels: teleportation, planeswalking, and the raising of the dead are now daily occurrences. The 'scry and fry' becomes a standard combat tactic, as anything with less magic than the party cannot withstand the tactical options wuxia players have. To heroic fantasy, wuxia characters are spoken of in whispers and stories. To gritty fantasy, wuxia characters are true living legends.

Superheroes (levels 16-20) is a completely different experience from what comes before. Facing anything less than ancient demons and primordial deities is a walk in the part, and 9th level spells are the party’s bread and butter. To wuxia, superheroes are their aspiration. To heroic fantasy, superheroes are living legends. To gritty fantasy, superheroes may as well be gods.

Some people love this progression and find it keeps the game fresh. Others don’t, and get bored with the game once it advances past the variation they actually enjoy. Some just find it an inconvenience: I remember distinctly one GM’s look of horror when we told him we were high enough level to cast planeshift, something I think he literally hadn’t considered and that threw off quite a bit of the rest of the story. I also remember another GM telling the story of the time he accidentally caused a TPK because the pre-written adventure he was using assumed the party had access to a certain level of healing magic which, not having a cleric in the party, they simply didn’t have.

Spheres of Power is, at its heart, about allowing people to play the game the way they want to. Rather than forcing people to take out what they don’t want in their game, we give them the option to add in what they do. Both players and GMs can decide when game-changing magic enters the game, how much game-changing magic will be used, and what it means to the story, world, and gameplay.

Some will want a progression like that mentioned above. Others might introduce game-changing magic right at the beginning and skip that whole gritty period. Still others might want to keep the game gritty the whole time, as they find the game gets boring when players can start reshaping the world according to their desires.

I’m curious to know how other people approach this magic in their own games, both with Spheres of Power or the core system. Do you use game-changing magic? Do you discourage it? Do you always create your games assuming characters over a certain level will become virtually immortal planeswalkers?

Monday, December 29, 2014

(Semi) Post-Mortem


It isn’t quite finished yet (there are two missing chapters), but it’s out and that means its time for some reflection. It's customary when finishing a big project to do a sort of reflective "post-mortem", but I've never done one of those before, and the product isn't quite technically done. Still, everything from the beginning of the Kickstarter to the release of the PDF has been different than expected, and it's about time for some explanations and reflections.

Going Pro 

No matter what creative field you work in, there’s a big difference between the aspiring professional and the actual professional.
  • The aspiring professional can go at his own pace. The professional has to hold to a schedule
  • The aspiring professional is allowed to make mistakes. The professional is expected to be past that.
  • The aspiring professional can go back and forth between day job, family, hobbies, and their aspiring profession as their needs demand. The professional is expected to have that balance figured out already.
So on and so forth. The transition from aspiring professional to actual professional is a long one, but Kickstarter has the uncanny ability to throw a company into the deep end of the professional pool and tell them to sink or swim. It’s almost a cliche now to hear companies talk about how they weren't prepared for the success of a kickstarter, but it’s a cliche because it happens so often it’s practically expected.

As for us, we’d already run a kickstarter before (which came in at a whopping $1,200 total) we expected this one to come in at $2,000, maybe as high as $5,000 if we were really lucky. And so, I did something that in hindsight was such a stupid financial decision that I expect many of you to shake your heads at me for it.

I promised a collaborator a percentage of the kickstarter funding.

When the kickstarter began climbing past $5,000 with no signs of stopping, we knew we had a crisis. We did the math and realized that as more people joined and the cost of production therefore increased, the more that percentage being scraped off the top was driving us into the red. Since kickstarters happen in real-time, my wife rushed to re-negotiate with the collaborator while I started devising stretch goals and new reward tiers that balanced production costs better to hopefully push us into having the overhead to actually do the project. In the end we managed to get the finances in order, but were now facing a much bigger project than we’d planned on, complete with an entirely new book (Wizard’s Academy).

I’ve always had a hard time leaving something alone if I know it can be better, and so with a project as big as this one I kept finding myself going back to basics and back to basics, thinking and re-thinking the spheres, the implications of what we were introducing to the table, and how it would affect the way people played vs how they thought they were ‘supposed’ to play. And as many of you know, a 3 months became 6 months became 9 months. I’m sure I must have looked comical to the people I was working with, as I’d set up mock battles between various characters and stop after an attack to discuss why they’d made that choice and what other options there might have been.

We did the best we could as we tried to find that elusive balance between family, day job and design, and we discovered a few things:

  1. There are dozens of little tricks, traps, concerns, and red tape that goes into running a small business that you never realize are there until you run into them.
  2. Running something as big as this kickstarter, this book, and this business on the side just isn’t viable. There’s just too much involved.
  3. I really, really like design.

While I was in the middle of developing these rules, Paizo made an announcement that they were seeking a new full-time developer, and like most of the community I applied.

I passed the first round. Then I passed the design test. I made it all the way to the final interview, but in the end I didn’t get the job (obviously). But even so, it was a great experience, and it got my family and I to seriously think about what it would take, and whether or not it would be possible, for me to really, truly do this full-time.

My dear pregnant wife was graduating in only a couple months, which meant the end of student employment, which meant we were approaching that horrible ‘what now’ phase of life, where we had a limited opportunity to choose where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do with ourselves. We had a book in development, but we also had a 2.5 kids. Did we want to bank our family’s future on my design skills, based on nothing more than a kickstarter and “well Paizo seemed to like me”?

We did.

As soon as graduation was over, we picked up and moved to the Northwest where most of the other game companies are located. We found a town about two hours from Seattle that had a college in need of a ballroom dance instructor (my most reliable day job) and set up shop. We knew this was a risk and it would set our already overdue book back even longer as we spend a few months finding a place to live, moving in, getting work and life sorted, etc., but in the end we knew it would give me more time to design, and it worked. The book progressed faster than ever before, and while not finished, we were nonetheless able to get the PDF out Christmas night. And, due to figuring out much better production lines and divisions of labor, the rest of it should follow much quicker than before.

The Future

If anyone was interested in why the book was taking so much longer than expected, that's the explanation, and my own commitment to make sure everything runs much smoother from here on out.

Being a professional company means we’ve had to change our approach to our own products. We’ve learned just how long it takes us to develop things and how to divide labor up so everyone’s constantly busy, and we’ve adjusted our schedule to compensate.

Our first priority is getting you what you paid for; finishing Spheres of Power and getting Wizard’s Academy out to you.

We will also be running a new Kickstarter in January, not for a finished product as such, but more for a product line: a series of PDFs that, while they will culminate in a physical book at the end, will allow us to release them serially to you as they’re done rather than asking you to wait for the finished product.

We will also be revamping our company website into a much better hub, and we will be using our Facebook page to make announcements much more regularly.

And as always, I’ll be using this spot for my own general musings, but I guess every designer needs a place for that.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Advanced Magic

The advanced magic chapter of Spheres of Power is almost done (or as done as it needs to be, given that new samples and some adjustments to the rules still need to  be made before publication) and I wanted to take some time to answer the question of why.

Why did we set things up this way, with magic divided into basic and advanced categories? Why is advanced magic listed as 'optional rules', when everything contained therein is already possible in the core Pathfinder magic system? I wanted to take some time to answer these questions properly, as they not only get into how SoP is used at the table, but also the whole design philosophy behind our work with Spheres of Power itself.

Many people have discussed at length "Story-driven" vs "Mechanics-driven" RPGs, but for our purposes I want to discuss another, similar-yet-ultimately-different divide: "GM-driven" vs "Designer-driven".

Perhaps the best single illustration of this concept is high-level play. When players have reached a high enough level that certain magic becomes available (Raise Dead, Teleport, Scrying, etc.), parties who have this magic play the game very differently than parties who don't. This is why high-level play is so difficult to balance, as it becomes almost impossible to guess what the party does or does not have at their disposal, and one of two things usually happens: everyone sticks to the rules (and often complains about how broken the game is at high levels), or the GM must improvise, customizing the encounters depending on the party and story in question to keep things interesting for everyone.

In the early days of the hobby, rules were light, and houserules were common. There were so many areas the rules simply didn't cover that DM improvisation was, in fact, often a necessity, so much so that the game might be completely different from one table to the other. One one hand, this made things annoying as each table meant learning a new list of houserules. On the other hand, this gave GMs both ability and permission to create whatever game or setting they wanted; it wasn't hard to write new rules if they wanted a world that, for instance, didn't have an arcane/divine disparity.

Then came 3rd edition, and everything changed. Through a strict codification and expansion of rules, the need for houserules could be lessened, and play could be standardized across tables. In many ways this was a blessing; players could move from table to table without having to re-learn the game, and things like organized play became possible. On the other hand, this also made things harder for GMs looking to go their own direction. The base-assumption of the game leaned so far against GM-driven mechanics that many players saw even the slightest breach of the wealth-by-level guidelines as some sort of betrayal of the social contract. Those GMs who wanted to houserule a unique setting or style of game also found themselves needing to re-write pages and pages of pre-existing rules.

Being a continuation of 3rd edition, Pathfinder falls squarely in the second category. However, as 3rd party developers (like myself) fall outside the official Pathfinder way of doing things, that places us, by definition, in the 1st category. Our job isn't to tell players how the game IS played, but to give them aids when contemplating how it MIGHT be played. We design for the players who are tired of Scry and Fry high-level tactics, or for the GMs who want to try a different kind of world than that which core Pathfinder infers. As such, while virtually anything possible through the core Pathfinder magic system is also possible through the SoP system, we decided to make no assumptions on our part as to how GMs would implement it.

In this fashion, the divide between basic magic and optional, advanced magic becomes an important change in mindset for both players and GMs. Instead of making GMs remove options they didn't want in their world, they can include the ones that fit. Players are completely at liberty to create scry and fry experts or use other game-changing tactics, but they must ask GM permission first instead of assuming that, since its in the rules, it will work for the style of game they are playing.

Perhaps this sort of thinking isn't new to you and your table, but all too often I've found it is. People get so caught up in how the game should or shouldn't be played that they forget how much freedom a tabletop RPG offers. We wanted SoP to be the toolkit for those who want more control over how their story is told, and are looking specifically for something they're not getting through the default assumptions of the Pathfinder roleplaying game.

Or at least that's our reasoning. What I'm most looking forward to after launch is seeing just how people end up using these tools we're making, and what they create as a result of them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Wandering RPG Masters

Today, Sean Reynolds launched his kickstarter for the Five Moons RPG. To my understanding, this is his first big project since leaving Paizo earlier this year. To the design-uninitiated, I could understand if this project slipped your notice; the tagline the project is using for itself is more or less 'Pathfinder with the bits I didn't like changed.' It sounds like that one GM you know who thinks his houserules are so cool he should just publish it as his own game.

Except in this case, it's frikkin' Sean Reynolds writing the houserules. A guy who worked on D&D 3rd edition for 4 years, Pathfinder for 5 years, and even more as a freelancer is doing his version of how the game should be played. Comparisons are easily made to 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet of D&D 3rd ed and 4th ed fame (who're running their own kickstarter), and Numenera by Monte Cook (who's kickstarter was a legend on that particular fundraising site). Wolfgang Baur may be designing for Pathfinder, but he's mostly doing it as a 3rd party products these days, making his own spin on the game (he's running his own kickstarters as well.)

The way Kickstarter is changing game design is an old subject by now, and tabletop RPGs has always been an industry built on people making things in their basements, but these days it seems like all the big names are getting out of the old D&D/Pathfinder corporate world and starting their own companies and building their own games.

Technically this move has been happening for a long time; when D&D 4th ed came out, angry retro-gamers reviving their favorite 1st ed games as a better alternative. Then Pathfinder was created as a haven for fans of 3rd edition. I've heard it said (although I'm having a devil of a time remembering the link) that D&D Next's big goal isn't so much the acquisition of new players as it is inviting old players to come give D&D another chance.

Some of them will, but I'm fairly confident that many of them won't; or at least, they'll add it to the list of other games they're also playing. Not only have players learned to love other games, but many of the great RPG developers, like wandering martial arts masters of old, have set of on pilgrimages to develop their own techniques, systems, and variations on the art form.

While I'm sure Wizards of the Coast would love to monopolize the tabletop RPG world as they once did, I don't think it will ever happen again. And I honestly think that's a good thing; I believe a bigger, more competitive marketplace will grow the hobby much more than a single monopoly. With every company and great name coming out with their own games these days, I feel like we're officially a major industry; RPG is no longer synonymous with D&D, even inside the D&D, F20 tradition. Like the formation of Europe, the great D&D empire has fallen and we've all divided into our own nations, unified in history and culture but divided in government. And perhaps, as the landscape settles, the upheaval ends, and the new RPG dynasties solidify behind these great designers, we'll find ourselves a stronger hobby for the divide.

Who knows. What I do know is that its a changing world, and there's a lot more players now. And that sounds fine to me.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Moving

In about a week, I will have moved from Provo, UT to Ellensburg, WA. There're a few reasons prompting this move; After doing my undergrad, my wife's undergrad, and my wife's Masters at BYU it's definitely time for a change of scenery. It's a good chance to break out of old college ways and build some new, better habits in a new location. However, the biggest reason, (and the one that answers the question of "why Ellensburg instead of somewhere else?") is that Seattle WA, which is about 2 hours out of Ellensburg, is the world capital for my line of work. Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, a slew of indie companies, and even more video game makers all call the area home, making it the greatest concentration of my peers outside of the yearly Gen Con.  

Every motivational speech you'll ever hear usually talks about taking risks; big risks bring big rewards, you can't know unless you try, etc, etc. What these speeches don't spend time reminding you about is that risks also carry the chance of failure, and often the bigger the risk, the greater the chance of it blowing up in your face. 

Moving to the Northwest without a definite job and only a few contacts in the industry? Big risk. 

Biiiiiiiiig risk.

But it's one I think we have to take. We have a few years break before my wife goes back for her PhD, our kids are still young, and as a small 3rd party developer, there's no where else that will afford me as many opportunities as the Northwest. 

There was a time I took a similar risk. Back when I first graduated from college with my little Music Dance Theater degree, we decided to try our hand at New York. I went out early to try and get established and look for jobs, housing, and everything else my family would need. I even video blogged the experience while I was out there, but in the end it didn't work out and we ended up moving back to Provo.

And now, years later, we're doing it again. I think I'll have to video blog it as well, just for old time's sake.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I am a Perfectionist

I am a Perfectionist. That doesn't mean what I make is perfect, but simply that I have a hard time letting things go when I know they can be better. This is, incidentally, the main reason why Spheres of Power is taking so long; with the way the project grew through Stretch Goals there suddenly became so much more to consider, which meant I kept getting to visit and re-visit the core mechanics and how they interacted with the new stuff. On the bright side this leads to a better book. On the down side this means the wait for the book keeps on growing.

There are benefits and drawbacks to this style of design. Some of my favorite creators have been perfectionists; author Patrick Rothfuss takes so long to write a book that he's famously decreed he will add another week (and I think now it's another year) to the wait time for his next book every time someone asks him how much longer they're going to have to wait, and his books are some of the finest ever written. (seriously, this is not an exaggeration; read "The Name of the Wind".) For the musical-lovers out there, there's a reason Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dance routines are still considered some of the greatest ever made.

On the other side, it could be argued that while Patrick Rothfuss is an amazing author, it's this exact problem (taking so long between books) that's keeping him from getting the complete world-wide recognition he deserves. As for Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, there are stories about just how horrible they were to work with because of this very quality; they refused to stop until they were completely satisfied.

There's also a financial problem with perfectionism; in an industry that lives as hand-to-mouth as RPG design, perfectionism can keep you from getting a following going; there simply isn't enough products coming out quickly to get people excited for your work.

In the end I can't say whether or not my approach will prove the best one for me, I just know it's how I work. Perhaps it'll kill me, or perhaps it will be worth the wait. Here's hoping.